Tommy Johnson, 71; noted tuba player’s movie work boosted the tension in ‘Jaws’

Times Staff Writer

The opening notes, low and ominous, send a chill up the spine of anyone sitting in a darkened theater. The great white shark is near, cutting through the water in pursuit of its prey.

John Williams composed the music and the mounting tension it conveys for the soundtrack of the movie “Jaws.”

Tuba player Tommy Johnson lifted those relentlessly accelerating notes off the page, giving voice to the shark while bringing terror to the movie audience.


A “first call” studio musician who played tuba on thousands of film scores over nearly 50 years, Johnson died Oct. 16 from complications of cancer and kidney failure at UCLA Medical Center, said his wife, Patricia Johnson. He was 71 and had been working until a few weeks before his death.

The first movie Johnson played on was “Al Capone,” with a score by David Raksin. That 1959 film was followed by a seemingly endless list highlighted by “The Godfather,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” the “Indiana Jones” trilogy, the “Star Trek” movie series, “The Lion King,” “Titanic” and “The Thin Red Line.”

But it was “Jaws” in 1975 that best showcased his film work.

“What I had in mind were the lower instruments of the orchestra, those capable of plunging the sonic depths ... that would represent the shark in music,” Williams said Tuesday in an interview with The Times.

“The tuba was one of the instruments that could create that atmosphere. It’s a difficult tuba part, and players need to be on their toes to do it. Tommy played it with great facility and ease, from where I was standing on the podium, as he always did. He was an outstanding instrumentalist.”

Johnson called “Jaws” his most memorable experience in the recording studio. Stuck in traffic on the 405 Freeway during a rainstorm, he arrived late to the session.

“When you’re late like that, you’re just really all upset,” Johnson recalled in a 2004 interview with “So as I sat down and barely got the mouthpiece in the tuba, I happened to open the book and the first cue is this big, long tuba solo....


“This solo kept recurring in almost every cue. I found out later that was the theme for the shark. I asked John Williams later why he wrote that so high for the tuba, why didn’t he write that for the French horns since it was in the perfect range for them? He said, ‘Well, I wanted something that was in that register but I wanted it to sound a little more threatening.’ ”

In addition to working on film, television and music recordings, Johnson performed with many local ensembles, including the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Pasadena Symphony, the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra and the Academy Awards Orchestra.

He also taught music to junior high school students in the Los Angeles Unified School District for nearly 20 years. For most of his career, he taught advanced tuba players individually and at USC and UCLA.

Among Johnson’s former students are Norm Pearson of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Alan Baer of the New York Philharmonic and Gene Pokorny of the Chicago Symphony -- all principal tubists.

“That’s an unheard-of record of success for a teacher,” said Terry Cravens, chairman of the winds and percussion department at USC’s Thornton School of Music.

“It’s very difficult to win a symphony job, and he’s got those three students in the three top symphonies.”


Jim Self, who studied with Johnson at USC before joining him as an instructor, also played with him on “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” among other film scores.

The principal tubist for the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, Self said most students appreciated Johnson for more than his tuba playing. “His lessons were lessons in life; he helped them be better people.”

John Thomas Johnson was born Jan. 7, 1935, in Los Angeles to a tailor and his wife. Johnson and his four older sisters were exposed to music early on because their father was a baritone soloist in the choir at the Angelus Temple in Echo Park.

He received a bachelor’s degree in music from USC in 1956 and a year later married Patricia Lehman, a fellow music student who now plays violin for the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra.

They had four children: Keith Johnson, a cellist in the Melbourne Symphony in Australia; Sue Jacobson of Westlake Village; Michael Johnson of Phoenix; and Jennifer Bellusci, a Granada Hills violinist. They survive him, along with nine grandchildren and his sister, Almita Shivers.

Instead of a funeral, family members and friends will play at a musical tribute to be held Dec. 3 at Bovard Auditorium on the USC campus.